The Story Tree: A Slice of Forest History

A cross section cut from the stump of a long-dead ponderosa pine reveals the history of fire in the area.

The Story Tree is a cross-section from the stump of a ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) that grew to be approximately 600 years old. It was found on a mountainside north of Missoula, Montana.

Fire scars show that the Story Tree survived at least 13 fires between 1523 (31 years after Columbus arrived in Hispaniola) and 1889 (the year Montana became a state). These fires occurred about every 25 to 30 years, keeping the forest open and dominated by large, tall trees.

Without fire, a dense crop of young trees grows up under large, old ponderosa pines, and they gradually decline. Scientists are seeking ways to keep these old-growth stands that need fire. The history of the fire-scarred trees forms the foundation for their search.

Borrow the Story Tree

The Story Tree usually resides at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. However, it can be borrowed for educational programs. Contact the Fire Lab for more information on borrowing the Story Tree.

Be prepared: The Story Tree travels in a large carrying case (about 30 by 65 by 18 inches) that weighs approximately 80 pounds!


Arno, Stephen F.; Smith, Helen Y.; Krebs, Michael A. 1997. Old growth ponderosa pine and western larch stand structures: influences of pre-1900 fires and fire exclusion. Res. Pap. INT-RP-495. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station. 20 p.

Story Tree fire identification illustration
Story Tree location map
Examining scars made by fire during this tree's lifetime.